Science education in New Zealand is in decline.
We don’t have enough of the right specialist teachers and the programmes continue to be diluted. The tinkering at NCEA level 1 is a case in point.
Our long-term decline in the international PISA tests should have been a big wake-up call that all is not well. Like climate change, it has been gradual.
Yet little has been done and, as a result, many students are missing out on what should be a right in this country.
No doubt everyone has an unconscious expectation that the health care system will be there when they need it, and that scientists will have solutions for our environmental challenges. Not unreasonably, most people assume that we will train enough home-grown talent to address everything, yet the data suggests it is looking less likely.
The reality is that science is not well supported by the Ministry of Education (MoE) regardless of the rhetoric we hear. Notably, only one of the MoE senior leadership team has ever taught in a school (primary).
Of concern is that only a very small proportion of MoE employees (I estimate fewer than 1 per cent) has a science degree, and I couldn’t find anyone who had taught chemistry or physics. No doubt my statistics are wrong, but you get the picture. Sciences don’t register as important on the MoE radar; they are just another subject.
The ministry’s teaching philosophy is dictated by a “one size fits all” mentality. The bureaucrats appear to assume that all subjects can be taught the same way.
For example, in English, we teach three basics skills from about five years old: read, interpret, write. The problems get more complex as students progress, but that is roughly what we do.
In the case of science, most students don’t start any learning until Year 9. They don’t know “stuff” yet - and you have to know stuff before you can apply it.
Science concepts are not easy, and require time and appropriate scaffolding of ideas.
Attempts to engage with MoE are futile. I once proposed that we publish learning objectives (international best practice) for the external standards to support new or non-specialist teachers, but I was rebuffed. Their worry was that teachers would teach to the learning objectives - funny that - or teach to the exam.
I asked what I should do if I didn’t know what to teach? The answer was “to look at past exams”.
They followed up by saying that if they did it for my subject, then they would have to do it for all subjects (one size fits all).
When I was involved in exam writing, we were asked to decrease the number of questions in the exam as they wanted all subjects to be the same.
“One size fits all” science is not in good shape, but, luckily, our assessment system has lots of wriggle room and it can all be hidden or, as is happening, blamed on Covid.
Dumbing down the standards to make everyone look like a winner will not help, but it does hide the problem.
Don’t be fooled that we got rid of scaling. We still adjust the results, but we call it by a different name.
It is common in some schools for teachers to avoid the difficult NCEA Science standards. Teachers have been known to turn students away from their external exams because they already have enough credits, while other schools discourage external exams altogether.
Incredibly, the high number of students failing exams has led to some teachers asking for these assessments to be less rigorous and therefore easier for students to pass.
Schools, teachers and students will continue to game the system, sometimes for well-meant reasons, but over time we can expect the knowledge base of students to decrease.
Some of these students will then become teachers and will be forced to teach outside their specialisation - and so the downward spiral continues.
Still other students will aspire to be nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists, but the reality is that, for many, their knowledge base will be too low and they will struggle to succeed at university level.
The New Zealand public needs to understand that its education system is in decline.
We can’t vote the bureaucrats out, but surely our politicians can help own the problem? Politicians like short-term quick fixes so this is what I think will happen.
We will open the borders and try to entice science teachers from abroad to accept small salaries and live in our expensive cities. We will impress them with a fancy video with lots of green grass and a few sheep. Chuck in a flyover of a rugby game and some white-water rafting shots and I reckon we will get a few recruits.
I can’t promise they will stay.
- Dr Andrew Rogers is the head of the chemistry department at St Peter’s College in Auckland and chair of Science OlympiaNZ.